ABU DHABI – British and French defense ministers pointed to longstanding strategic relations with Arabian Gulf countries as they sought Feb. 16 to boost industry and military ties with the energy-rich region, a big buyer of equipment looking to develop local businesses.
French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in a keynote speech at the Gulf Defense Conference, said Paris seeks not a commercial relationship but a “real strategic partnership founded on confidence,” with co-development and co-production projects in armaments and defense.
The high-level conference, organized by Inegma, is tied to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) opening Feb. 17.
The French presence at the IDEX trade show shows France is ready to deepen partnerships in high technology areas with the United Arab Emirates, Le Drian said.
Paris hopes to sell the Rafale fighter to Abu Dhabi and faces competition from the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F-18. Lockheed hopes later to sell the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the UAE.
France also hopes to win a UAE tender for 700 armored vehicles, with state-owned Nexter bidding against the Patria AMV from Finland.
“There’s one chance in two,” an announcement could be made at the IDEX show, a Nexter executive said.
In wide ranging remarks on policy, Le Drian said there is no compromise possible with “terrorism,” that France should have the political will to commit, when necessary, to helping “friends, allies, and partners” and to uphold its convictions.
“We have to maintain the capacity to react militarily far from our borders,” Le Drian said. “Long-range strike, intelligence, aerial refueling, and special operations forces are essential capabilities,” he said.
Strong links between France and Arab world carried “responsibilities and duties,” Le Drian said. Over 40 years, France has become one of the leading defense partners with the Gulf Cooperation Council, signing several defense cooperation agreements, he said.
The creation of a French permanent military base in Abu Dhabi showed Paris’ responsibility as a “world power” to help contribute to a world balance, he said.
The base is part of a relationship, which includes military cooperation, exercises, close operational ties which are strengthened by the fact “our forces are equipped with common equipment,” Le Drian said.
“Engagement is not a vain word, or a pious wish. When a state friend needs help, France replies ‘present,’” he said.
Le Drian pointed to three major crises: a perceived threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, and conflicts in Syria and Mali.
In Syria, a political transition is needed, in which president Bashar al-Assad “has no place,” Le Drian said.
Nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, chemical warfare and regional destabilization are the big threats, he said.
France is committed to security and stability in the region, Le Drian said.
Flights of Mirage 2000-9 and F-16 Block 60 fighters flew in formation over the conference held at the Armed Forces Officers Club.
Britain also sees the Gulf region as a key area, and wants to promote the U.K. as a potential buyer of defense kit built in the region.
“In age of uncertainty, Britain is a consistent partner. We will respond to your aspirations and lend you our support,” Philip Dunne, minister for defense equipment, support and technology, said at the conference.
Britain recognized the “vision to develop indigenous capability,” he said.
“We recognize in the years to come, supply of defense and security equipment will increasingly become two-way traffic,” he said.
“We are not restricted in the UK only to procure defense capability within our national boundaries or rely on a handful of selected defense partners,” he said. “We stand ready to procure much defense equipment through open competition and greater international collaboration.
“Our market is open to your growing defense industries,” he said.
Britain last year published its open procurement philosophy, he said.
“Britain has one of the most technologically advanced defense industries in the world,” Dunne said.
Almost 100 British firms are exhibiting at IDEX and NAVDEX, the associated naval show, he said.
As part of the close ties, bilateral trade between Britain and the Gulf nations has risen 39 percent over the last two years, Dunne said.
Some 160,000 British nationals live in the Gulf, with many more visiting each year, he said.
The Gulf is vital to global energy supply, and the UK imports about 20 pct of its gas from the region, he said.
The British armed forces have some 1,500 personnel deployed in the Gulf, with around 300 in non-operational missions such as defense attachés and support teams.
Since the conservative government won power in Britain in May 2010, there have been more than 160 ministerial visits to the region, including four by prime minister David Cameron, Dunne said.
That has been matched by more 100 visits to the UK by senior Gulf officials, including state visits, he said.
“Our approach is one of friendship and partnership,” Dunne said.
London has long standing relations with many Gulf countries stretching back centuries, he said. That shared history has built up “trust,” he said.
“Our economies and cultures are increasingly intertwined,” he said. The Gulf nations have links throughout Britain -- from universities, skyscrapers, financial institutions to football clubs, he said.
“The impact from inward investment from Gulf nations is rapidly growing,” Dunne said. The security and prosperity of the Gulf is of critical importance to the UK, he said.
“A threat to the security and prosperity of this region represents a threat to our interests,” he said. “We have a common interest in the stability of this region.”
Britain’s capacity to intervene in the Gulf region will grow under the Force 2020 military reorganization planned after the exit from Afghanistan, he said.
London looks to boost joint training and interoperability with Gulf forces. “We have some of the best trained, best equipped and most experienced armed forces in the world. They exercise, they deploy, and they fight, and they do it extremely well,” Dunne said.